THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
Masked vigilantes are as American as apple pie, whether they are the Klan or the Lone Ranger. Invariably they have been white. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie recently asked us to notice how HBO’s Watchmen had given its character “Hooded Justice” the identity of an avenging black American (“‘Watchmen’ Dares to Imagine a Righteous Black Vigilante,” 25 November 2019). “What kind of society produces masked vigilantes?” Bouie asks. “Who takes on the mask? The answer? A society shaped by profound injustice, where the victims have little recourse.”
Ironically, it is precisely because “Hooded Justice” disguises himself that we think we know who he is and what he stands for. What if you don’t have the option of disguise, or shun it, and speak truthfully of yourself and your motivations? Likely enough, history will disguise you anyway.
If there is any figure that America’s history of racial violence has identified as an avenger of sorts, it is Nat Turner. How has he been disguised? History has secularized Turner, it has deprived him of the deep marrow of his religious ideation, the Christian faith that drove his apocalyptic thinking all the way to the Second Coming and the Last Judgment.
Eugene Genovese, the late historian of slavery, thought Turner deserved “an honored place in our history” because he had “led a slave revolt under extremely difficult conditions.” But the same Genovese derided Turner as a mad religious fanatic “who had no idea of where he was leading his men or what they would do when they got there.”
Genovese wanted Nat Turner to look like Gabriel Prosser or Denmark Vesey – stern and disciplined, a sort of proto-Bolshevik. So did Arna Bontemps, author of Black Thunder (1936), a novel about Gabriel’s Rebellion. Bontemps had considered writing about Turner, but had been troubled by his “‘visions’ and ‘dreams,’” his “trance-like mumbo-jumbo.”
The most famous disguiser of all, William Styron, wanted Americans to confront the violence and trauma of slavery, and settled on Nat Turner as his instrument. He thought Turner could be America’s means to, as he put it, “know the Negro.” But Styron refused to know Nat Turner. He dismissed the “demented ogre beset by bloody visions” he believed he had encountered in the archive of Turner’s Rebellion as nothing more than a “religious maniac” and created his own Turner shaped not by faith but by “subtler motives” arising from “social and behavioral roots.”
Through the scribbles of his “confessor” – the white Virginia attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray – Turner left behind an invaluable account of himself that Gray published in his famous pamphlet The Confessions of Nat Turner, shortly after Turner was hanged. Unfortunately, that person – deeply Christian, evangelical, moved by an extraordinary faith – is the one that most observers refuse to know and prefer to turn into something else. The result is, the Turner who in fact spoke plainly about himself without disguise is rendered unknowable; an enigma, a chameleon, “the most famous, least-known person in American history.” He becomes a shrouded mystery because we refuse to pay attention to what he actually said.
To understand this avenger – what sort of an avenger he was, by whom he was charged to act, and on whose behalf – we have to begin by listening to his own account of himself. We will find that he is not a mysterious masked vigilante at all. Instead we can dare to imagine a righteous black who has no need of a disguise. Perhaps then we can confront what he did and why without first needing to put on masks of our own.
Christopher Tomlins is author of In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History, just published by Princeton University Press.
Essential Weekly Reads for Overseas Americans. Free